A relevant Islamic philosophical theology should not be purely theoretical or historical. It should address intellectual problems actually faced by the general public. The main intellectual problems facing the general Muslim public, in my view, fall under two categories. On the one hand, there are the apparent and real contradictions between Islamic values and those of the globally dominant liberal culture. On the other, there are the apparent and real contradictions between postulates of Islamic theology and those of modern science. These are, of course, inseparable. They are only various aspects of the whole tension between moral and metaphysical reality according to Islam, and that according to the dominant cultural narrative. Here, however, I intend to examine the problems on the moral side of this equation. These problems present themselves to the individual Muslim at various degrees of depth and breadth, depending on how far she goes in the process of thinking through their philosophical roots and implications. The treatment of a problem, in the way of an intellectual resolution, should be proportional to the degree at which such a problem is experienced.
If the purpose of Islamic philosophical theology is, as I have proposed, to treat such problems, then the Muslim theologian in the required role of public intellectual needs to present her ideas in various manners, as appropriate to the various types of audience and their various needs. Contemporary Islamic thought cannot be allowed to remain an exclusively ‘ivory tower’ exercise, relevant only to a few intellectuals, and therefore irrelevant to most of the general public. For this reason, I propose to describe these issues, somewhat ‘phenomenologically’, in order of the depth at which they might pose themselves at different levels of reflection.
For example, I think it is obvious that many Muslims living in the contemporary world experience a public discourse that, explicitly or implicitly, classifies Islamic values as ‘backward’, irrational, or even atrocious, in relation to those of ‘liberalism’ or ‘the west.’ Living under largely ‘secular’ orders beholden to a dominant global liberal-capitalist socio-economic paradigm, we experience a discourse which often operates on the assumption that only the values governing the latter are rational and, therefore, universally valid. To be clear, it is not simply the experience of moral and cultural diversity that raises this problem. Such diversity has been present throughout Muslim history. The difference here is disparity of power.
No Muslim feels the need to justify his values and practices to, for instance, Chinese people in terms of Confucian values (other than, perhaps, Muslim minorities in China). In fact, Chinese and other non-western people worldwide experience some of the same pressures that Muslims do in relation to western norms. Any Islamic values that differ from those are presumed as either positively immoral or irrational, if they are construed in the discourse as contradicting liberal values; or simply a non-rational fetish, without objective basis outside of the ultimately relative, specific realm of cultural identity. The Muslim finds herself in the position of being required to justify her ‘distinct’ values and practices in terms of the ‘universal’ secular or liberal norm. She does not experience any need, on the part of liberalism, to be justified in terms of Islam norms.
If the individual Muslim takes another step in the discursive process of addressing that demand, the following dynamic unfolds. Universal validity, one is told, requires rational justification, which Islamic values inherently lack. They can therefore only be justified by appeal to liberal norms and values. Thus, for example, the practice of modesty in dress, as manifest most controversially in wearing hijab, has come to be justified by Muslim apologists as an instrument of female empowerment or gender equality, as conceived in more or less western liberal terms. Great pains are taken to justify other Islamic norms and practices as, in fact, instruments for realizing values understood by the apologist to be recognized as ‘universal’ in liberal culture, and to resist accusations that they might reflect any values fundamentally different from those.
To take the next step in this discursive process of rationally justifying Islamic values to the dominant western audience (or to one’s self, inasmuch as one has internalized that audience) involves asking, more specifically, what counts as a rational justification under the western liberal paradigm, in terms of which a norm or value would be acceptable as valid? At this point, the Muslim has entered an engagement with the dominant cultural paradigm at a more intellectually sophisticated level. The move is to interrogate the interlocutor as to exactly where the goalposts are, and to insist that the dominant culture ‘put its cards on the table’ so to speak. And at this point, it should be become apparent that, behind the united front that appears when the dominant ‘west’ initially confronts the Muslim as a ‘universal’ standard, there are in fact a number of differing factions at the table with a variety of different cards in hand, widespread difference as to where the goalposts of moral validity lie, general confusion as to how to their exact location can be discovered, and serious doubt as to whether there are goalposts that can be discovered at all.
Once the cards are on the table, the poker face is unsustainable. The Muslim who takes the discussion to this level will have entered fully into the predicament of modern moral and social philosophy. When the bluff is called, and an account is demanded of the rational justification for the supposedly exclusive universal validity of western ‘liberal’ values, one is exposed to a bewildering array of mutually contradictory versions of mostly utilitarian or broadly ‘Kantian’ theories on the one hand, and various types of surrender of the very prospect of rationally justifying universally valid moral norms on the other – the latter including various forms of relativism and ‘post-modernism’. In some cases, one will encounter the claim that skepticism about universally valid moral norms itself is, paradoxically, the justification of the universal validity and moral superiority of western culture.
One option is to accept the distinction of western norms as universally valid, and to hold Islamic values and practices to that standard of rational justifiability. To do this requires one to adopt and defend one of the several competing underlying theories as to how moral norms are rationally justified. To do so, while simultaneously holding to one’s commitment that Islam is a divinely revealed message, necessarily involves reinterpreting that message in terms of the chosen western ethical theory, essentially deciding whether, for example, God is, in the final analysis a utilitarian or a Kantian, etc. This calls into question the status of Islamic revelation as a genuine source of moral and ethical guidance, and seems to demand of the Muslim a sort of surrender of her moral autonomy to the tutelage of whichever ethical theory she takes to be the rational grounds of the universal validity of western norms.
Another option, frequently taken by Muslim intellectuals who have engaged in this discourse, is to resist the moral hegemony of western norms by altogether rejecting the very notion of universally valid values, along with the possibility of the rational justification of moral claims, on which such a notion rests. That is, to adopt the postmodern position of moral relativism and the rejection of ‘grand narratives’ per se, as a means of calling out western claims to universal moral authority on the basis of moral reasoning, as mere pretense disguising an arbitrary cultural chauvinism. But such a position logically precludes the belief in Islam as a universal message from God to humanity, since the rejection of grand moral narratives in principle entails that such a belief is also an arbitrary cultural chauvinism in disguise. The Muslim in such a position then has to choose between abandoning Islamic values and practice as just another culturally relative system of social conventions, or to insist on them through a sheer act of will, in the face of the apparent futility of moral reasoning and rational justification. Both are ultimately forms of nihilism. The latter position fairly accurately describes the nature of contemporary fundamentalist sectarianism, and accounts for the degree to which violence – both physical and discursive – has reigned in the place of reasoned discussion and respectful disagreement.
The first question, which confronts the Muslim precisely because it confronts the whole world in our shared modern predicament, is whether and how moral reasoning is possible at all. The second, specifically facing the Muslim, is whether and how moral reasoning can be engaged to defend the legitimacy of Islamic values against the threat, both of arbitrary western moral hegemony and utter moral skepticism (the two of which may well be ultimately equivalent). On these questions rest the possibility of a third option: that the validity of Islamic values and practice can be explained and understood in terms of an over-arching Islamic ethical paradigm that is rationally justifiable and amenable to productive moral reasoning – an Islamic morality founded on the pursuit of truth rather than merely the defense of an arbitrary identity.
This raises an old issue that has been with us since the Mutazilites and Asharites took up the old ‘Euthyphro’ question. Is it possible that an explanation of the validity of Islamic values be based directly on moral truths, the evidence of which is independent of reference to revelation? Or is it that the direct basis of any such explanation must be solely that the values in question are mandated by the text, in conjunction with independent evidence that the text is, indeed, a message from God? In other words, is Islamic moral epistemology simply a ‘divine command theory’, or is there something more to be said about it in relation to moral facts and/or faculties that are to some degree independent of revelation?
If there is, then moral reasoning with non-Muslims (and between Muslims) is at least possible, in that we can admit at least the possibility of discovering well-grounded common moral reasons (as distinct from fleeting common sentiments). It would also provide sense to the idea (which seems to entail a kind of moral knowledge independent of revelation) that the Qur’an and the character of the Prophet appeal to an innate human sense of goodness. On the other hand, the epistemic role of Islamic revelation in our moral life, and the ontological role of God and His relation to creation in our understanding of value, seems rather attenuated by this prospect. For a system of morality that can be shared between a believer and an atheist is objectively valid only in a world that would be morally the same whether or not God and revelation exist. And a world that would be morally the same whether or not God and revelation exist is a world in which God and revelation essentially do not matter.